You might have a great idea for a screenplay to the point you can visualize the story unreeling in your head. But how do you put the story into a screenplay format? Here are the beginners’ tips to writing your first screenplay.
How to Write a Script, the Basics
Conceiving a great idea for a screenplay is only the beginning of the creative journey. The writer will need to know how to put the ideas down, what to put in, what to leave out, how to format the dialogue, how to express scene transitions and action descriptions. And all with the three-act structure supporting the story. Obviously, a blank Word document is not the way to go. The screenplay should be properly formatted. You can get free screenwriting software for a variety of formats, including TV dramas, feature length films (for US and UK formats) and even soaps from BBC Writersroom. You have a choice of two screenwriting programmes, which are Scriptsmart, or the more advanced Scriptsmart Gold.
Free Screenwriting Software for the Beginner
Follow the onscreen instructions to upload BBC’s Scriptsmart and get familiar with the programme, which is pretty easy to follow. You will find that by opening a document, Scriptsmart will format the page with certain paragraph settings and spaces that are used for scene headings, paragraphs and dialogue within the screenplay. Such prescriptive page settings ensure that each page will equal a certain amount of time: a page of film script equals a minute in film time. The ideal screenplay should be therefore be between 80 and 120 pages long. The first page will show the title of the screenplay in caps, the writer’s contact details (email, etc) will be exhibited on the lower left corner.
Screenwriting Basics in Formatting
The screenplay is really a blend of two elements: speech and action scenes. So when conceiving a screenplay, I will usually put these down in a notebook. You may research into the characters’ backgrounds right down to their childhoods and families as well as what they are thinking as the scenes unravel. But unlike novels, none of this back-story should be present in the actual screenplay. The skill of making apparent what the characters are feeling through what is on screen alone, might take some getting used to. When it comes to screenwriting, show and don’t tell really comes into its own. So only what is seen and heard on the screen should be on the screenplay. Nothing else.
How do I Open the Screenplay?
Every screenplay should begin with a FADE IN which is the opening of the first scene. Each scene should open with a ‘slugine’ which is expressed in caps. A slugline is in three parts: whether the scene is inside or outdoors (exterior or interior), which is expressed as EXT. or INT. This is followed by the location of the scene, which might be in a car or office. The third part is time of day, usually DAY or NIGHT, although EVENING or AFTERNOON can be used. If a scene follows in a continuous fashion then CONT. can be used. An example of a slugline, therefore might be: INT. GERALD’S OFFICE – DAY
Rather than use the same slugline repeatedly if two scenes occur in the same place, you can put THE SAME – LATER (or CONTINUOUS) if only the timeframe shifts.
Every slugline should be followed with an action description which informs on what the characters (if any) are doing and their locations, which might be, ‘Anne is standing by the window reading a letter. Gerald enters. He appears worried.’ And this illustrates the next crucial point. Every action description should be expressed in the present tense. Action descriptions should ideally be pithy and to the point. Don’t include lengthy descriptive passages. Break each action sequence into ‘beats’ of no more than 4 lines long. Be as brief and to the point as possible with action descriptions.
Dialogue Formatting for Film
Each morsel of dialogue should be headed with a character name, again in caps. The dialogue itself has a shorter line length than the action description and centred beneath the character name. A choice of speech qualifiers (in brackets beneath the character name) can be used to describe how the dialogue is to be delivered, which might be (V.O.) voiceover, (Into phone) speaking into the phone or (O.S.) off screen (if the character speaking is not visible on camera). Others can be used, such as (sardonically) or (sharply). Use these qualifiers sparingly. Let what is said reflect how it should be delivered.
How to Use Montages and Series of Shots
Rather than employ a series of sluglines to express a succession of short scenes, you can use a ‘series of shots’. This is headed with SERIES OF SHOTS, slugline-like, and beneath a series of brief descriptions lettered A), B) and C) etc will be seen. An example of a series of shots might look like this:
SERIES OF SHOTS
A) Suzie walks up a street
B) Suzie enters an office block
C) Inside the office, Suzie strides up the stairwell.
D) Suzie walks through a door. Gerald greets her and they shake hands.
A Montage is formatted identically to a series of shots, but is headed MONTAGE instead. A montage is really a means of conveying a mood or atmosphere via a series of scenes, such as a busy day at work or moments of grief after a child loses her mother.
What does a Screenplay Look Like?
Really, a screenplay will contain a smattering of words with lots of white space, headed with a series of sluglines in caps, and character cues in caps. Dialogue and descriptions will be expressed in upper/lower case, where the dialogue will exhibit shorter line lengths. A good idea is to take a look at other screenplays, which can be viewed online for free.
How do I Make the Film Script Work?
The final act of the screenplay will FADE OUT. But really, this is the beginning, as every screenplay will need drafting and redrafting. The writer should get familiar with the elements of a screenplay such as the three act structure, the story hook and the point of no return. Such story elements will help the screenwriter plot pivotal points within the screenplay story for optimum effect. Links to articles describing these elements can be found below. Finally, depending on how you are submitting your screenplay, you can either save it as a PDF for online submissions, or carefully brad the 100 or so pages together within a flexible wallet for the post. Make sure the finished screenplay is pristine and perfect.
Advice for Beginning a Screenplay
But of course, drafting and redrafting the screenplay will often be necessary. The initial stage is a fairly organic process, where notebooks and pencils will be needed. Once putting words into the screenplay document, you can really begin to see how the storyline might unfold through action scenes and dialogue. But don’t submit until you have weeded out: typos, stereotypes, scenes that serve no purpose, areas without conflict, clichéd paragraphs, wordy dialogue and literary prose.
One of the best ways of moving the script forward is to put it into a bottom drawer for a few weeks and reading it afresh. Alternatively, get a trusted friend to give impartial feedback. More about improving the screenplay can be found on the links below.
How to Write Screenplays, the Basics
Elements of a screenplay
Guide to drafting your screenplay
Character development for films
What to send in a screenwriting submission package
Three act structure of a screenplay
Great names for your character
Getting paid screenwriting jobs
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